FOUR years have passed since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse came into being, and in that time, an extraordinary rendition of shameful, deplorable, criminal behaviour – much of it by men of the cloth, supposing to tell others how to live their lives – has been laid bare by the commission and its investigators.
While some Catholics have complained about what they see as an inordinate focus on their church over other institutions, the mathematics of the matter make it impossible for the commission to ignore: Monday’s proceedings heard that in the 35 years from 1980 to 2015, almost 4500 allegations of child abuse were made to church authorities, involving some 1880 alleged offenders.
In her opening address, counsel assisting Gail Furness detailed disturbingly high rates of paedophilia in many religious communities, topped – if that is the appropriate word – by St John of God, with 40 per cent of its brothers alleged to be perpetrators of child sexual abuse.
As Ms Furness observed: “ The accounts were depressingly similar. Children were ignored or worse,punished. Allegations were not investigated. Priests and religious were moved. The parishes or communities to which they were moved knew nothing of their past. Documents were not kept or they were destroyed. Secrecy prevailed as did cover ups. Priests and religious were not properly dealt with and outcomes were often not representative of their crimes. Many children suffered and continue as adults to suffer from their experiences in some Catholic institutions.”
Importantly, this three-week hearing will attempt to understand why the Catholic church has had such problems with paedophilia. Ms Furness says “the evidence is likely to be that there is no simple answer as to why some priests and religious have sexually abused children”, with a “complex intersection of elements” within the church contributing to the situation. One witness, US canon law expert Father Thomas Doyle, says sexual abuse by clergy has been known about by the church since its earliest days.
Current church leaders have argued strongly that the problems raised by the royal commission are overwhelmingly historic, and that the sins of the past could not re-emerge under the church’s new-age checks and balances. Others are not so sure, and from the broader society’s perspective, the sad truth is that it is far too early to tell.